Washington, DC – Last week, as part of Purdue University’s Presidential Lecture Series, American Idea Foundation President Paul Ryan joined a conversation with former Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) entitled: “American Democracy: Where Do We Go From Here?”
The discussion was moderated by former Governor of Indiana and current President of Purdue University Mitch Daniels and featured questions from various student organizations on the key policy challenges facing our nation. Speaker Ryan talked about efforts to reduce polarization, expand pro-growth economic policies, and address the major issues facing communities around the country.
On revitalizing civil society and meeting the unique challenges of the 21st century digital landscape:
“I taught a class on political polarization last semester at Notre Dame and if you dig deep into this, there have always been different anxieties [in society] and what the digital and social media platforms do is they really drudge these up and give life to these anxieties. And the problem we now have is that you can make money on it. You can become famous. You can make money and monetize polarization and anger and those darker kinds of emotions. They’re good for hits. They are good for clicks. They’re good for ratings and they can be monetized and what I would call “political opportunists” can seize that, jump on that, and ride that.
“This is a new challenge to self-governance in our democracy the likes that we’ve not really seen before which means each of us, not just political leaders but community leaders, civic leaders, business leaders, and academic leaders have got to work much harder to try and overcome these challenges and to revitalize civil society. [Civil society] is that space between ourselves and our government, where we actually lead our lives, leaders have to get us to put our tablets and our phones down and work with one another.
“We need to experience one another and get people out of their comfort zones, out of their homogeneous societies, and integrate with one another. These are the things I work on at my American Idea Foundation, a poverty fighting organization that seeks to try and bridge gaps, to get suburbanites into the deep-inner cities and get people from inner cities out to the deep rural areas to try and get people to cross-pollinate and find common ground so that we can find solutions. Long story short, we’ve got to find ways to revitalize civil society, put aside these new challenges, and pick leaders that endeavor to do so versus those who try to ride the division to the top.”
On how leaders can reduce polarization:
“You need to articulate a political philosophy and a view of life as a leader that seeks to unify and inform and inspire people. What I mean when I say that is this: I served in Congress for 20 years and I had a pretty big Hispanic population in Racine and Kenosha that I represented. I always did town-hall meetings and I always had an interpreter and when I would then go in the rural areas, people would give me a hard time about that and I would just ask them to come join me. I would try to explain to people how we are a melting pot, how when my Irish ancestors came over and during the famine, they could only do jobs like being firefighters, policemen, or construction workers and we were not really well received either and we need to change that, but I think there’s a history of this and it’s just been accelerated by technology.
“I think it is really incumbent upon leaders to try and articulate a vision of inclusion, assimilation, and that shows our common goals, our common humanity, a common theme of opportunity and renewal. We want a free society that is safe and prosperous and full of opportunities and this is what people are seeking.”
On bringing down the cost of health care:
“I offered the alternative to Obamacare and I offered [a replacement bill] through the House of Representatives a couple of years ago. I would do refundable tax credits, which means a type of voucher to buy health insurance for everybody. It would have more for the poor, less for the wealthy, and I would change the way the insurance rules work so that you would get more affordable insurance.
“I would have risk pools that covers the people with real, big illnesses, so if government just bumps up and pays for the people who have catastrophic illnesses, you can dramatically lower the price of insurance for everybody else. A tax credit goes really far and everybody can get affordable care. I could go on and on but I’ll leave it at that, plus transparency in pricing and quality so you have true competition.”
On why the debt should matter to younger Americans:
“This is existential. It will affect your generation, your prosperity, and your ability to have a good life and a good economy. It really kind of does come down to healthcare. If you look at our healthcare entitlement programs, those are the greatest chunk of our unfunded liabilities and we have an important social contract that needs to be met. The government made promises to people like my mom, who is on Medicare and Social Security, so the question is: How do you keep these promises? How do you fulfill the mission of these programs without totally bankrupting the country and driving us into debt?
“I think the best answer is reforming these programs by bringing more market-based solutions to them which brings more choice, more competition, and brings down the costs. I’m proud of the fact that when I ran the House and when I was Budget Chairman, every session the House passed a budget that balanced the budget and paid off the national debt. It had reforms for Medicare, important reforms to Medicaid, tax reforms, budget reforms, and spending caps. There’s a way to do this. The problem is we could never get it anywhere else but the House of Representatives in those days.
“It is really hard for politicians to touch the “third rail” of embracing these reforms. This and immigration reform are the two big ones that got away from me [as Speaker of the House]. I think if we address these two issues, we will have a great 21st century for America.
“My last comment is getting healthcare right, which is using market-based solutions in my opinion, but I think the way to do this, politically speaking — and I hate saying this because I always thought this was a political punt, is a Commission. Something like the Greenspan Social Security Commission or the Base Closing Commission. I was on Simpson-Bowles and it was declared dead on arrival just about the minute it came out with its results by President Obama and Speaker Pelosi. We need a commission that requires an up or down vote on its findings by both houses of Congress that cannot be filibustered. I think, frankly, this is the best political path to getting this done. Mitt Romney, and I think he’s got a Democratic Senator on it, has a bipartisan bill to do just that and it’s in the Senate and has been introduced in the House by the Problem Solver Caucus, so that to me is the best political solution that’s available right now.”
On Trump bringing the “Forgotten Man” and dangerous conspiracies to the Republican Party:
“First, I’d say those groups are disgusting vile groups that have no place in the Republican Party. Period. End of statement. If you asked me who the Proud Boys are or who the Oath Keepers are two years ago, I would have never heard of them. They should be disavowed, they need to be disavowed, and I completely disavow them.
“I would say that one thing President Trump did do though is he brought a lot of disaffected blue-collar workers into the Republican party. I can just tell you from running around Wisconsin, which is not unlike Indiana and North Dakota, you had the Forgotten Men and Women who felt that globalization, technology, trade, whatever had passed them by in the 20th century. My own town of Janesville: We started with a GM plant which shut down and everybody wanted to have a new, great-paying job in our town, only [to have their wages] be replaced by 30 to 40% of the salary they were making, People are really upset about that and he spoke to them and he brought them into the Republican Party. So, I can speak from these personal experiences that he brought a lot of disaffected, blue-collar workers into the party.
“He also brought those elements you mentioned and he breathed life into and gave some kind of normalcy to [these groups], which is totally wrong. This QAnon thing is just a crazy conspiracy theory, Frankly, I think we have a real problem with conspiracy theories now [and that’s] partly because of Donald Trump and because of the way the internet works, and the way these things start pinging around the universe before the truth gets out. Leaders have a responsibility to tamp those down and that’s where he would miserably fail on that front.”